10 Final Triumphs Of Fallen Historical Powers

List Rules
Vote up the most impressive late triumphs

Throughout history empires have risen and fallen. Some enjoyed great longevity, while others could only muster a brief spell at the top. Few of history's great empires disappeared overnight; many went through long declines before falling. Even during these downturns in fortune, some of history's most expansive empires could still pack a punch in a pinch.

From the beleaguered Romans putting a stop to Attila, to the so-called "sick man of Europe" getting one over the British, this collection looks at the most notable victories achieved by historical powers very much in their twilight. 

  • 1
    17 VOTES

    The Ottomans Trounced An Anglo-Australian Invasion In World War I

    By the early 20th century, the ailing Ottoman Empire had the unflattering nickname of "the sick man of Europe." The once-mighty empire was far beyond its 17th-century heyday at the dawn of the First World War. Large territory losses and internal strife caused the British to severely underestimate the Ottomans' capabilities after the empire entered the fray on the side of the Central Powers.

    The British Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, devised a bold scheme to land an army on the Gallipoli Peninsula and, with naval support, seize the capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul). The narrow confines of the Dardanelles strait made effective Allied naval support difficult, and once landed, the British, French, and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops found a determined and tenacious foe. The Allied assaults ground to a halt and both armies dug in; the Gallipoli peninsula began to resemble the Western Front. Both sides tried to break the deadlock without success in a series of frontal assaults, which only served to add to the already long casualty list.

    After 10 months of futile effort, the Allies decided to cut their losses and pull out in January 1916. The blame fell squarely upon Churchill’s shoulders and set his career back significantly; even decades later, the British statesman never truly shrugged off the taint of the defeat. Conversely, the great victory was a springboard for the future career of Kemal Attaturk in the conflict's aftermath.

  • The Sasanians Put A Temporary Halt On The Muslims' Conquests 
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    13 VOTES

    The Sasanians Put A Temporary Halt On The Muslims' Conquests 

    The Sasanian (also written as Sassanid) Empire was a formidable Persian dynasty formed out of the overthrow of the Parthian Empire in 224 CE. Just like their forebearers, the Sasanians were great rivals of the Roman Empire. The eastern portion of the Roman Empire, often known as the Byzantine Empire, vied for control of the Near East with the Sasanians for centuries. In 626, the Persian dynasty reached the very walls of Constantinople itself, but could not overcome the city’s formidable defenses.

    The conquest of Egypt in 621 represented the empire’s high point. After the early successes of the conflict, the Byzantines regained lost ground and forced a stalemate. The draining conflict left both sides vulnerable to the Muslim conquerors of the 7th century. The Rashidun Caliphate, formed after the passing of the prophet Muhammad, invaded the Sasanian empire and won a string of victories to drive the empire out of the Arabian peninsula.

    On the banks of the Euphrates, the Sasanians almost reversed the course of history by overcoming a Rashidun force in a major engagement known simply as "the battle of the bridge." The Sasanian commander successfully baited the opposing army to cross the river. According to one account, the caliphate’s commander Abu Ubayd met a grim end at the hands - or rather trunk - of a white elephant that pulled him from his horse and trampled him. The Arab horses panicked at the smell of the elephants as the Persian infantry held the line against the onslaught. The Rashidun army broke and fled, but the Sasanians missed the chance to turn a great victory into something even greater by not pursuing the enemy.

    This victory proved to be the swan song of the Sasanians; it was the one victory in a wave of decisive losses that saw the entire empire conquered by 651. 

  • 3
    10 VOTES

    The Western Roman Empire Stopped Attila With Some Help From The Visigoths And Franks

    By the 5th century CE, the western half of the Roman Empire was on its last legs. The empire’s sharp decline in fortunes was the result of decades of mismanagement and corruption. Its reliance upon slave labor rendered large portions of the empire’s lower classes unemployable, and inflation soared. To add to these economic woes, barbarian incursions escalated from a frontier nuisance to a major threat.

    The most potent external threat came from the Hunnic hordes led by Attila. Both sides of the Roman Empire would feel the wrath of the Huns as Attila first struck the east and then turned his attention to the west. His forces rampaged through Gaul, prompting the weakened Romans to form a coalition force to stop to the invasion. Under the leadership of the Roman general Flavius Aetius, an army that included sizable numbers of Alans, Franks, Saxons, and Visigoths confronted Attila’s army somewhere in Northern France. The precise location of the battle is the subject of some dispute but is generally believed to have taken place in Champagne. 

    The army of the west might not have been a patch on the all-conquering legions of the past, but it was still a capable fighting force. On June 20, 451, a ferocious battle between the Roman coalition and the Huns took place. Among the slain was King Theodoric I of the Visigoths; both armies suffered huge losses as the Huns were driven back. Although short of a complete victory, Attila and much of his army lived to fight another day; the battle put an end to the invasion. It was the Roman Empire’s last significant military accomplishment. 

    Just a few years later, in 455 CE, the Vandals sacked the city. The empire finally fell in 476 when a barbarian king named Odoacer deposed the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, and proclaimed himself king of Italy. Augustulus was so insignificant that he was granted an estate in the country and allowed to live out the rest of his days in relative obscurity.

  • Sparta Defended Itself Without An Army
    Photo: François Topino-Lebrun / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    38 VOTES

    Sparta Defended Itself Without An Army

    Famously, the Spartans didn’t build walls to protect their city. As the Spartan Lycurgus once noted, a city is better protected with "brave men and not by bricks." The maxim served Sparta well enough during its heyday as the main player in the Peloponnesian League, but the city's run at the top of the Greek world would prove to be short-lived. An earthquake and a long and destructive conflict with Athens drained crucial Spartan manpower, paving the way for the northern kingdom of Macedonia to become the region's dominant power.

    By 272 BCE, Sparta was long past its prime. But the diminishing city-state still had some fight left in it. With the army campaigning in Crete and only a few men left in the city, Sparta looked ripe for plunder. Pyrrhus of Epirus, still smarting from a costly expedition in Italy, decided to take advantage of the situation and led his army to the seemingly undefended city.

    The Spartan women refused to evacuate and abandon the city, and instead took to aiding what little garrison there was left to defend their home. They helped dig a trench and supported the heavily outnumbered defenders. Over two days, the inexperienced Spartan warriors and a handful of allies from neighboring states held off the forces of Pyrrhus and forced him to turn back when fresh forces from Macedonia arrived.

  • The British Retook The Falklands In 1982
    Photo: Newsweek / Wikimedia Commons / Fair Use
    19 VOTES

    The British Retook The Falklands In 1982

    Once spanning a quarter of the world, the British Empire’s days as a major power were long gone by the early 1980s. The Falkland Islands were one of the few overseas territories still in British possession. The islands changed hands a few times before the British took control in 1833; they have remained a part of Britain ever since. 

    However, the islands have long been claimed by Argentina. In 1982, British defense cuts offered an opening the Argentine junta couldn’t resist - it hoped to take attention away from an economic crisis and internal unrest with a symbolic victory. The Argentinians sent an expeditionary force to seize the islands in the hope of forcing a negotiation to hand them over to Argentina without a fight. The junta severely underestimated the British resolve to keep the distant isles. 

    Three days after the incursion, the British dispatched a task force to retake The Falklands. They threw together an ad hoc force, including refitted merchant ships, to conduct an amphibious invasion 8,000 miles away. The British then established an exclusion zone, making any ships that entered the area fair game. The Argentine vessel General Belgrano was sunk by a British submarine, the largest loss of life to occur in the conflict. The threat of Argentine planes remained constant and several British ships were damaged and sunk. British marines landed on May 21 and easily bested Argentina's conscripts in a series of skirmishes that culminated with the capture of the capital, Stanley, and surrender of the Argentine force on June 14, 1982.

    The conflict was a major boon to the British Conservative Party, and Margaret Thatcher’s government was reelected the following year with an enhanced majority. For the defeated Argentinians, the ruling military dictatorship collapsed in 1983. Several former members of the junta were convicted for the atrocities committed by the regime in the 1970s and '80s.

  • The Byzantines Defeated An Ottoman Attack On Constantinople With A Little Help From The Virgin Mary 
    Photo: Cristoforo Buondelmonti / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    14 VOTES

    The Byzantines Defeated An Ottoman Attack On Constantinople With A Little Help From The Virgin Mary 

    The eastern portion of the Roman Empire outlived the western half by almost 700 years. The empire’s fortunes shifted greatly over the course of its incredibly long existence, but by the Middle Ages, the empire’s best days were long gone. Following the infamous sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, the Byzantine Empire fractured into two successor states before regaining the great city in 1261. Despite this success, the damage was already done.

    To the east lay the region’s rising power: the Ottomans. Initially just one of many beyliks rising from the ashes of the Sultanate of Rum, the Ottomans soon became the dominant force in Anatolia. The Byzantines became a vassal of the Ottomans in the 14th century. Thanks to some limited help from the west, the Byzantines helped to stave off the empire's final collapse for another generation. 

    The formidable defenses of Constantinople were a match for even the most powerful of Renaissance forces. In 1394, the Ottomans made the first of four attempts to take the city. The first attempt was lifted after a civil war broke out in 1402. Clever diplomacy helped stave off the second attempt; the Byzantine emperor played two Ottoman factions against one another in 1411. Attempt number three represented the last real Byzantine military victory in 1422. 

    The Byzantines gave as good as they got in the third siege, returning fire with the Ottomans. According to one contemporary account, the city’s walls had some divine aid in the form of the Virgin Mary, who allegedly appeared on the walls to inspire the defenders. Strangely, this was also related in Ottoman accounts of the siege - the sight of a woman dressed in purple robes on the outer ramparts:

    ...having seen her, shudders and fright immediately entered everybody’s soul. So because of the woman fear overtook them and the city was liberated.

    Whether it really was divine intervention or simply a Byzantine woman appearing in the right place and the right time, the miracle of 1422 only delayed the inevitable. The fourth siege was the final one. After the failure of the final Crusade in 1444, no further help would be coming for the Byzantines.

    The Ottomans left nothing to chance in 1453. Sultan Mehmed II led a large army equipped with gigantic cannons to take the city once and for all. Even against such overwhelming odds, it still took six weeks for the Ottomans to take Constantinople. The great city became the new capital of the Ottoman Empire.